Ramadan again ends in violence, and Iraqis see disturbing changes in recent weeks

Ahmed Qassim spent Monday mopping up blood and sweeping broken glass from his clothing shop in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood. It wasn't how he'd hoped to mark the close of Ramadan, Islam's holy month.

"Is this eidia for us?" asked Qassim, referring to the gifts that Muslims give each other to celebrate Ramadan's end. His Attar Street store sits about 150 feet from the site where at least 19 people died in a double bomb attack Sunday night.

"For me myself, I lost four friends," he said.

Every year since the U.S.-led invasion, violence has spiked across Iraq during Ramadan, the ninth month of the lunar calendar, when the Quran is said to have been revealed to the prophet Muhammad. Muslims celebrate Ramadan, which ends this week, by fasting from dawn to dusk, asking forgiveness for their sins and doing good deeds. They break the fast with iftar, an evening meal.

Security across Iraq is better than it's been in years, and this Ramadan brought a much smaller upswing in violence than previous ones did. But in recent weeks, the number of roadside bomb attacks is increasing, and so are assassinations.As Barack Obama and John McCain debate American's future in Iraq and whether last year's surge of additional American troops really worked, Iraqis are beginning to witness some small but disturbing changes.

Dumped bodies are once again appearing along Baghdad's streets. Two years ago, Iraqi police recovered an average of 50 bodies a day across the capital, most of them shot in the head with their hands tied behind their backs. By this summer, the bodies had all but disappeared, but this month, they began to show up again, usually one or two a day.

According to a McClatchy count, 179 civilians, soldiers and police officers were killed across Baghdad during Ramadan last year, compared with 97 so far this Ramadan. The deadliest attacks on civilians this Ramadan came on Sunday night, when four bombings in Baghdad killed at least 32 people and injured more than 100 in less than two hours.

It's not clear whether the changes are byproducts of Ramadan that will go away once the holiday ends, or whether they're signs that political frustrations are beginning to erode Iraq's hard-won security gains.

As the holy month comes to a close, Iraqis are obviously hoping for the former."It's been so much better this year," Hussam Abdul Hammed said Monday afternoon as he left a local food market and headed home to prepare iftar. "I feel like there is so much more to celebrate this time."

Last Ramadan, Hammed said, he could hardly leave his house in Baghdad's Qadisiyah neighborhood. This year, he's visited family almost every evening, stayed out late and shopped in markets that he never would have gone to six months ago."To say it simply, there is no comparison between this year and last," he said. "It was too dangerous to do so many things last year. Now I feel safe going out."Ramadan began in Iraq on Sept. 1 for Sunni Muslims and a day later for the country's more numerous Shiites. Senior clerics from each sect determine Ramadan's exact dates based on the appearance of the moon.

Fasting ended Monday for Sunnis and will probably end Wednesday for Shiites. Ramadan is followed by Eid, three days of eating, gift-giving and visiting family and neighbors.

In past years, violence has dampened the celebrations. People stayed closer to home. Even going to a local market to buy ingredients to prepare iftar was risky. This year, Iraqis hoped improved security would mean a more festive Ramadan. And for the most part, it did.

"You can see so many more people in the streets, so many more cars," said Nadil al Sahie, a university professor and father of three who was shopping for iftar at a Baghdad market on Monday. "Even at night, people are out. They are going to restaurants. It's happening in lots of neighborhoods, not just here."Al Sahie said he's optimistic about the future now. "I believe tomorrow will be better than today," he said.

Ali Abass, 25, witnessed the double bombing Sunday on Attar Street. "We were laughing moments before the explosion," said Abass, who had come to the area with friends to buy new clothes for the end of Ramadan. "After, everyone was crying, and now many families have funerals and tears instead ... I don't think I will buy new clothes anymore."